The importance of rifle care

David Barrington Barnes emphasises the importance of proper rifle care to prevent unfortunate and costly mistakes.

A game hunter looking through the reeds with his sniper rifle

In researching this subject, I have revisited my old British Deer Society course notes. These started with an excellent safety lecture. I still have the transcript of this which opens with emphasis on the vital importance of safety in stalking. The lecture introduced various points such as the danger of faulty equipment, ammunition issues, rifle handling and of course shooting.

Although there are no doubt still some unqualified, uncertified deerstalkers, I cannot recommend too strongly the benefits of attending a few courses.

Learning about safety in stalking of course only starts in the classroom but it’s a great start in an activity in which one mistake is too many. Classroom knowledge helps the novice stalker to avoid getting safety wrong before they have a bank of experience to help them.

Mishaps sometimes occur because of a combination of factors. An example of this involved a stalker who owned a Remington BDL short bolt stalking rifle in .243 calibre. Over one summer the trigger pull imperceptibly became lighter, but so gradually that the stalker was hardly conscious of this.

Then, one morning he set up an ambush to intercept a regular roe buck. His firing point was a bank that overlooked a shallow valley and he placed his roe sack on this bank to improve his lean. The buck duly appeared and moved from left to right below him in a restless manner typical of a roe buck during the rutting season.

Every time the stalker put the rifle on the buck he moved and on the last occasion his movement denied the stalker a shot when he had moved the rifle safety catch from “safe” to “fire”. This was too much for the stalker’s nerves so he laid the rifle down on the roe sack for a moment without returning the safety catch to “safe”.

Never take a shot without being 100 per cent certain of your target’s identity

As he did so, the rifle discharged. Fortunately, no harm was done with the rising ground behind the buck on the opposite hillside providing a solid backstop, but the stalker was greatly embarrassed by this accidental but preventable discharge.

On examination by a riflesmith, the sealed trigger unit of the rifle was found to be full of grass seeds and heather pollen which had caused the trigger to become lighter and had in effect converted the trigger into a “hair trigger”. So there were two lessons: First, rifles need regular checking and servicing. Secondly, the safety catch should be on safe at all times except when the shot is being taken.

The lecture emphasised the importance of a back stop but not all hunters acknowledge it. I have a newspaper report from Bonnieux in France of a 75-year-old man riding a moped who was killed instantly by a bullet that had first gone through a wild boar.

In another case, this time from Scandinavia, a hunter shot and killed his brother who was a mile away. His intended target was a blackcock perched at the top of a tree. He was using a .222 calibre rifle.

It’s well worth thinking on both these mishaps and how unlikely the tragic outcomes were. There is a time tested aphorism applicable to them that runs: “Any fool can loose a bullet but the greatest genius in the world cannot recall it.”

The well-respected stalker author John Thornley, O.B.E. emphasises the huge damage rifle bullets can do. He writes: “I always remind myself when examining a shot beast that the damage done by these extremely fast bullets has no different effect on the human body.”

John has investigated a number of shooting fatalities over the years which have, he says, involved inherently risky procedures. The importance of identification of the target animal before the shot is taken is highlighted by both Thornley and veteran stalker and trainer Major Hugh Rose. The latter has a story illustrating this which fortunately did not have a bad ending.

The roe stalker involved had been out through a whole winter’s day and had “blanked” although he had had several half chances without being able to take a shot. In failing light, frustrated, tired and fed up he had a last sweep with his binoculars, and spotted the back of a beast screened by a wood pile.

He could only see the top couple of inches of what he took to be the back. He had the cross hairs of his scope on this but refrained from shooting because his line of fire would likely have been obstructed by the stacked timber. As he waited for the animal to step clear, to his absolute horror, a girl in a Barbour coat stood up to adjust her clothing. The stalker was sick!

My own target identification stood the test one summer morning as I stalked into a position from which I could safely fire into a wood corner. There was a mound of earth in this corner on which deer would often pause to view the fields outside. As the light changed from black to grey I thought I saw a beast by the mound and waited for the light to improve so I could check it out for gender and suitability. 

In the coming light I started to have doubts and eventually was able to see that I had stalked a parked motorcycle and small tent. I left the tent’s occupants to sleep undisturbed.

The arrival of thermal on the foxing and stalking scenes makes identification even more compelling. It is simply unacceptable to shoot at the eyes. The whole animal must be seen. In one case, the rifle shot a trespasser having mistaken the latter’s thermal light for an animal’s eyes.

Never put a gun down without putting the safety on

No article on rifle safety would be complete without reference to being safe around your stalker colleagues. When running deer moving days, I require participants to show their empty chambers to the first person on the scene, who becomes senior rifle for this purpose.

I do not allow anyone to load their rifle or put it loaded in any vehicle and the good sense in imposing this prohibition is confirmed (by Maj. Hugh Rose again) in his tale of the tragic death of a passenger while a loaded rifle was being passed within the vehicle.

When around others, muzzle awareness is vital. As John Thornley puts it: “Developing and demonstrating muzzle awareness is key, as is being prepared to actually confront someone who isn’t.”

This report will simply scratch the surface of the subject of rifle safety but I will leave it and all my readers with Thornley’s final wise observation: “Remind yourself that if soldiers can accidentally shoot themselves despite the discipline and training they receive then we should take our safety procedures most seriously.

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